Tourism is not sustainable. Conscious travel may be?

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An opinion piece written for Sydsvenskan and Helsingborg's daily, published on 2nd June 2019


Tourism as it is now, no matter how carefully managed, will not be sustainable. Tourism is defined in the Oxford dictionary as ‘the commercial organization and operation of holidays and visits to places of interest.’ The definition sums up key characteristics of modern tourism as a commercial industry, built around demand-supply business models that focus on profit-making and the commodification of destinations. Tourism thus inevitably exploits and consumes a wide range of resources, from the essentials such as water, public infrastructures and facilities, to the broader natural landscapes, cultures and heritages.

Unsurprisingly, gone are the days when tourism growth was met with uncritical welcome. The promises of tourism do not seem to be enough to offset for the reality many locals are facing: the fast increase of housing prices, congestions, destruction of nature and bad tourists’ behaviours. Many also find themselves waking up in homogenised places, where unique local shops gradually disappear and are replaced by a handful of major international brands catered mainly to tourists. Public protests start to emerge in many popular tourists destinations. A number of ecologically sensitive areas such as Maya Bay, Thailand or Boracay, the Philippines were also closed off due to the constant pressure of tourism.

What are the Swedes’ responses amid these controversies? In 2018, a survey by Vagabond magazine found that Swedes carried out half a million fewer overseas trips than the year before. 35% of those surveyed cited concern for the climates, partly inspired by climate activists like Greta Thunberg. This is however only part of the picture. Swedes still take more than 1 overseas trip per person each year, and flight is still chosen as the dominant mode of travel. At the same time, both domestic and inbound tourism continue to increase rapidly. The number of overnight stays in Sweden rose by about 20 per cent in the years 2008 to 2015. Despite creating three times more carbon footprint per passenger compared to on-land travel, Stockholm also welcomes record numbers of cruise ships and cruise tourists in 2018.

Let’s face it. Tourism is addictive. For the governments, tourism is an attractive industry to attract foreign investment, generate tax revenues and create jobs. For lay citizens of the 21st century, tourism has increasingly become a ‘necessity’ to recover from the routine-weary work and home. Global tourism thus will continue its exponential growth, as we tend to close our eyes on tourism’s major drawbacks until they hit too close to home.

However, has humans’ act of travel always been associated with the consumption of places and holidays for temporary gratifications? Tourism researcher Dr. Freya Higgins-Desboilles of the University of South Australia claims in a scientific article that long before tourism as a business activity existed, travel was often initiated by social forces. Travel can be an important medium for personal and professional growth, a healing journey to go back to the roots for the diaspora, a sacred pilgrimage for religious communities, or important opportunities to directly experience various local/global issues that foster the next generation of activists and philanthropists. Moving beyond sustainable consumption, conscious travel requires clear awareness of the travelers’ motives, and constant reflections on the countless encounters with locals, heritages, and wildlife during the journey.

Influenced by social forces, conscious travel can also contribute to the flourishing of destinations beyond the rhetoric of economic growth and economic trickle-down. Through actively engaging local citizens, local businesses and local civil society into planning and co-creating visions for a destination, travel activities can better support the destination’s unique qualities and contribute to addressing local environmental/social problems. For example, the Bhutan government has introduced a policy called high value, low impact’: Tourists pay US $ 250 per day to stay in the country. Of these, $ 65 goes directly to the cost of free education, health care, and environmental care.

At the heart of conscious travel movement are also newly emerged social enterprises that support social innovations via travel activities. One example is Authenticitys, a network service that connects visitors in Barcelona to a diverse range of impactful local experiences offered by local NGOs, charities and community organisations. Internationally, networks and organisations such as Impact Travel AlliancesTourism Education Future InitiativesConcious.Travel and Tourism Co-lab are activating new pathways in education, policies and practices to transform tourism into a purpose-driven force that contributes to make the world a better place.

Is conscious travel capable of creating a difference or just a new buzz word? The jury is still out, but one thing is for certain: a sustainable future of travel can only start with the direct confrontation of tourism’s core assumptions that most of us have long taken for granted.

Period2 Jun 2019

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